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The funeral question: What happens if there’s a death in the family while you’re abroad?

What happens if there's a death in the family while you’re abroad?

It was one of those messages every traveller dreads receiving.

When my Dad told me that my Grandma had passed away, I was shocked. Although she was over 80, no-one in my family had expected her to go so suddenly. Memories of last year filled my mind, when I’d spent a month in Hobart visiting her while my parents were away. A few times a week we’d sit down for coffee and cake (a German tradition) and she’d tell me all the details of what our distant family members were up to.

This news had me feeling pretty crap, but it also posed a serious dilemma:

Do I fly back for the funeral?

I would have liked to think that it would be an easy decision to make, and that of course I would immediately jump online and book a ticket back to Hobart to be with my family, but in practice, it wasn’t that simple.

First of all, New York and Hobart are practically on opposite sides of the globe. It would take 3 flights and a total of 35 hours travel time to get back to my hometown.

Now I’m no stranger to lengthy flights, but the journey wasn’t the only thing that had me questioning whether a trip back was practical.

I’d also planned on attending TBEX in Florida the following week, so going to the funeral would mean skipping the conference and forfeiting hundreds of dollars in non-refundable flights, accommodation, and conference tickets. It was something I’d been looking forward to for a while, and if I didn’t go, who knows when I’d get another chance.

What happens if there's a death in the family while you’re abroad?

My Grandma and I at my wedding earlier this year

I spent a few days brooding and considering my options, and in the process I discovered that this dilemma is actually a rather common one. When I told friends of my internal struggle, I was met with their stories of being in a similar position.

One friend told me of how she heard the news of her own Grandmother passing while she was touring South East Asia. Another told me of how she cancelled her birthday plans through Europe so that she could fly home to the US when her Grandmother died. Even Robert’s boss told us that he’d had to go through the same thing when a family member passed away in his home state of California.

The harder I thought about it, the more I realised that as a frequent traveller, this is likely to happen to all of us at some time or another. It’s not something we can plan for and it will probably happen when we least expect it.

So when a situation such as this comes about, do we drop everything to go back? Or do we continue our travels as planned?

Hobart, Tasmania

Back in my hometown earlier this year

I set up a video call with my parents to ask their opinion, and they told me that they completely understood if I decided to stay in New York. Strangely, this didn’t make me feel much better about it. There were still feelings of guilt that I wasn’t there with the family.

I also spoke to my cousin who had moved to London around the same time that Robert and I moved to New York. He told me that he’d considered flying back for the funeral, but that he’d hardly built up any leave days at his new job, which he’d only started a month ago.

My brother told us that he would attempt to set up his laptop with a video feed of the funeral so that those of us who couldn’t make it would be able to “attend”.

This, I eventually decided, would have to do.

On Friday morning at 2:30 AM, the alarm on my phone sounded and I got out of bed to watch my Grandmother’s funeral, which was happening at 5:30 PM back in Australia. It was not a pleasant hour to rise, but I told myself that the 35 hours of travel would have been more painful.

Surprisingly, it did feel somewhat like we were there, and afterwards I finally felt like I hadn’t made the wrong decision. Everyone appreciated that we’d done as much as we could considering our distance.

In the end, I realised that I wasn’t a terrible person for not going home. Technology allowed me to be there to a certain extent, and that was enough. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to whether we should drop our travel plans to go back home for a funeral. Whatever we choose will be an ok choice, as long as we can accept ourselves for making it.

Have you ever had a death in the family while you’re abroad? Did you fly home, or continue travelling? I’d love to hear your story, please share it with us in the comments.


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Ashlea Wheeler

This post was written by Ashlea, a colourfully clothed and excitable vegetarian who loves photography and exploring the world. Find out more about me.

34 Responses to “The funeral question: What happens if there’s a death in the family while you’re abroad?”

  1. Alex Conomos

    I was worried I would be in this situation when I lived abroad and it does weigh on your mind. I don’t think there is one right answer and it depends on individual circumstances. It’s much more important to have shown love to that person while they were alive rather in death.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      You’re absolutely right about that one, and it’s something I thought about too – the fact that you showed love to that person while they were still in your presence is more important than being there for them after they’ve died. Thanks for your comment, Alex 🙂

      Reply
  2. Anca | Globaloud

    It happened to me in 2016., while I was on my one month language summer school in Italy. My grandma died all of the sudden after only 2 weeks I spent there. I could go back, but that meant canceling the whole school I paid a lot, and probably not going back there. I decided to stay in Italy, but also to stay in mind with my grandma since we had a Vatican trip the same day. I spent a lot of time alone, in prays for my grandma and I considered it my own private farewell.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That sounds like a lovely way to say farewell. Your story shows that something like this is never going to happen at convenient time, so you might just have to improvise and do everything you can do with the situation you’re in. Thanks Anca 🙂

      Reply
  3. Kirstie

    I’m sorry for your loss. I haven’t had to experience this myself, but I have often wondered what I would do. I guess it really depends on the circumstances. Hopefully I won’t have to figure it out any time soon, though! Glad you were able to join the funeral through a video feed, at least.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Kirstie 🙂 I think you’re absolutely right about it depending on the circumstances, there are so many things that could influence the decision on whether to go back. Having the video feed made me feel much better about not going back, though I’m lucky I have a tech-savvy family who were able to set that up – I know not everyone would have that luxury.

      Reply
  4. Camilla

    I’m very sorry for your loss.
    The same thing happened to me when I studied abroad in the US two years ago. When I left my home in Denmark, I knew that my grandmother had cancer, but she was fine back then. One month in, I got a call from my parents, who told me that she had passed away. I of course really wanted to go back for the funeral, but both my parents and the rest of my family told me to stay in the US, and even my grandmother had told me before I left that had to go through with it, no matter what happened. So even though it was tough as hell, I still had the support of my family, and I had a bunch of friends who had been in the same situation and whom I could talk to, which really helped a lot!

    http://cammi.dk

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for sharing your story, Camilla. I know it would have made a huge difference to have have your family supporting your studies and your situation! And of course it would have helped that your Grandmother had told you to go through with your studies in the US. You’re very lucky to have friends and family that were willing to assist you in your decision 🙂

      Reply
  5. Silke Stoll

    Hello Ashlea,
    My name is Silke and I live with my family in Germany. I am very sad about the loss of your grandmother. I do not know if they told you about me. I am a distant relative of yours. It always hurts a lot when the loved one of us go, and even worse it is when you can not be with them. In your situation I would initially not even know if you’re doing the right thing. Fly to be with family or to stay where you are, because of the time factor also plays a major role. The beautiful was in your situation that you after all the possibility had to be on a video conference here. I think in Germany they would not have allowed to do so easily. That’s something other customs and traditions. I too have my beloved grandma lost early this year. My promise was great – to accompany her to accompany her and to hold her hand.
    I think your grandmother would not have wanted you to stress on you take this. In this situation, your grandma was safe with you, and gave you taken the right decision. I think our grandmothers have met now and will watch over us, our guardian angels … Cordial greetings from Germany and a lot of power for the next time. Silke

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for your message, Silke! I know we have many distant relatives in Germany, but don’t know much about them all. I was very lucky to be able to watch the video feed of the funeral, it made me feel much better about not making the trip back to Australia. And you’re right about my Grandma not wanting me to stress about the decision! I’m sorry to hear about your own Grandmother, it’s lovely that you got to be with her until the end.

      Reply
  6. Carey Carpenter

    Thanks for writing about this, I have a feeling it may be me you are talking about canceling my birthday plans and flying back home 🙂

    It is a struggle that at some point we all might have to face, it is not an easy one at that. I think there is no right or wrong, it is whatever you feel is best and the support of your loved ones around you. What great things technology can do these days!

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Yes, it was you! I wasn’t sure whether you (or the other people I was talking about) would want to be mentioned so I kept it anonymous just in case.

      It’s definitely a tough decision and one that most of us will have to deal with at some stage. I think the most important thing we can do is accept that whatever decision we make, it’s for a good reason. I’m glad you made the right decision to go back in your case!

      Reply
  7. Madi @ Restless Worker

    I’m glad you managed to find a way to ‘attend’ the funeral. I couldn’t imagine how hard that decision much have been. My boyfriend constantly worries about that living in Canada – if something happens to a loved one at home, what choices does he have? Will there be enough money to return home? This sounds like a great option you had.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Madi. I don’t think it’s something that we should be constantly worrying about, just something to keep in mind so that we’re prepared that it might happen at some stage. Hopefully it doesn’t!

      Reply
  8. Jenia

    I am so sorry about your loss. This is one of those ‘modern day’ challenges — we no longer necessarily live near our family, so we have to accept that sometimes new solutions (like video conferencing) have to be found to for situations like this. I am so so glad you found peace in your solution — your grandmother looks absolutely lovely in your wedding day photo.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s very true, I’m sure that this wouldn’t have been such a problem before air travel became so popular! It’s amazing what solutions we can find with modern technology, it really did feel like we were there for the funeral even though we were on the opposite side of the globe. Thanks Jenia 🙂

      Reply
  9. Anni

    I’m so glad you wrote about his! It didn’t happen to me but a few weeks before I spent time abroad for the first time we found out that my grandpa has cancer and I was so afraid that I wouldn’t be there when it happens. Luckily it didn’t and he’s fine now, but I never saw someone talking about this difficult, very personal topic! Love from Germany, Anni

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m glad that you didn’t have to go through it, Anni! You’re right, it’s not often spoken about, but it’s definitely something I think we should talk about. One thing that I thought about at the time was that the situation would be so much harder to deal with if I wasn’t able to talk about it with my friends and if had no one to turn to for guidance. It’s a nice feeling knowing that there are there people around who have gone through the same thing 🙂

      Reply
  10. Mary

    Definitely the right thing to do, although a hard choice. These things cannot be helped. Sorry for your loss, Ashlea.

    Reply
  11. Laura

    So sorry for your loss. Thankfully, I haven’t had to deal with this yet but I’ve definitely thought about what I would do since I have three grandparents in their 90s. I think your solution is perfect and I would feel comfortable doing that as well if the situation ever arises.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Laura. I think it’s a situation that many people who travel a lot have to go through at some stage, especially if they have elderly grandparents. It’s not nice to think about, but we have to be prepared!

      Reply
  12. Ellie

    I’ve actually had this situation happen to me twice. The first time I was on a volunteer programme in Borneo in 2012. I was planning to be away for two months. Within the first few weeks of my trip I got a call from home saying my grandma had gone into hospital as she’d slipped and broken her hip. From then on I kept in touch with home on a regular basis (much more than planned). My grandma’s condition deteriorated quickly and she passed away 3 weeks before I was due home. My family told me that they wanted me to stay and finish my experience, and they more I thought about it, the more I realised my grandma would not have wanted me to end my trip just for her funeral. My friends on my trip were incredibly supportive and I got to sa my goodbyes in my own way when I got home. So the decision that time I don’t regret.
    However, last year I went away to work and travel the entire year. I was in Australia’s outback, but originally from the UK. 4 months in I received a call to say my dad had suddenly passed away. This was a whole different problem I faced. My dad wasn’t old, this wasn’t expected and despite my friends and colleagues being brilliant, I just knew I had to go home. It took me two and a half days and cost me nearly £1000 (thankfully travel insurance helped me claim most of it back) but I did it. And I have no regrets. I personally could not have missed that funeral, and I discovered I needed a lot of family time and me time to come to terms with it. I never made it back to Australia to finish off my working visa, but I realised that’s ok. Other opportunities came out of me coming home, later in the year I went to south east Asia instead, I got to help my mom get back on her feet, found some very interesting work and managed to start a new relationship.
    So from my perspective, I think it comes down to more than just someone passing away. It’s how you cope with the situation, really thinking about what you need to cope. Sometimes staying where you are and immersing yourself in the experience is best, and sometimes going home for a hug off mom is just what you need.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh wow, that’s unlucky 🙁 I think you make a very good point about your Grandma – many of our loved ones wouldn’t want us to cut short an experience just for a funeral. It doesn’t mean you love them any less just because you decided to keep going.

      It would have been very hard to cut short your Australia trip after hearing the news of your Dad. Sometimes, we just have to make that kind of decision no matter how much money it costs or how difficult it will be. I’m glad your insurance covered most of your expenses. Thanks for sharing your stories with us Ellie – I’m sure this will help other people make decisions for their own situation!

      Reply
  13. Robyn Moore

    Thanks for your article. Not sure how to handle my dad’s recent death.
    For me, I have not had a relationship with my dad for more than 27 years – no communication at all. I do have a good relationship with my half-brother and uncle.
    If I fly the 22 hours home, I leave my two kids at home with my husband and a lot of stress with my absence.
    I want to be there to support my brother. I grieved the loss of my dad decades ago when he said he didn’t want anything to do with me (he had mental health issues) but I make things really rough for my immediate family if I fly back for a week.
    ARG!! I like your video idea. I wish someone would show me where my priorities should be!

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m sorry to hear about this, Robyn, it sounds like a difficult decision for your particular situation. In the end, you just have to decide what will work best for you. Good luck and I hope everything works out for you and for your family 🙂

      Reply
  14. Lisa McMahoney

    Hey guys

    Thanks for your article. I have a dilema now too. I am due to fly out to Australia for a year 2 weeks today but sadly i got news that my gran (82years) has to go in for an emergency heart op and there is a risk she might not survive it 🙁 i dont know wether to cancel my trip or not. Ive invested alot of time and effort into this giving up my flat and job ect but i dont want to seem selfish. I love my Gran soooo much i just dont know what to do.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s terrible to hear, Lisa 🙁 It might be possible to delay the start of your trip and then continue it as planned in a few weeks time. What was your decision?

      Reply
      • Lisa McMahoney

        I’ve actually been here a week today but around an hour ago my mum message me to say she bas taken a turn for the worst. I am not sure what to do if she does pass do i go home or stay? I wont get another chance to do this again but i know id feel guilty horrible decision to make 🙁

        Reply
  15. Rose

    I’m going through this situation right now, I’ve been gone a few weeks and I found out yesterday that my grandpa was in the hospital and they found terminal cancer. This morning I found out he passed. I’ve been told not to come back and he wouldn’t want it, but I want to go home. I don’t know what to do or how to handle this in another country when I’m completely alone. I don’t have anyone here that I can turn to and I don’t know how to deal with it on my own. Any advice?

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m sorry to hear that, Rose. I really can’t give you any more advice than I’ve already given in the post, as the decision is entirely yours. Whatever you decide, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s a tough decision and there is no right or wrong answer.

      Reply
  16. Leila

    My grandma (best friend ) died on April 4th,2017 at 80years old 😭 I spent 5months living with her in the beginning of 2016 in NZ, attending university. She always lived alone and enjoyed it, gardening everyday etc .. but I kept her company for those few months too which she enjoyed (sometimes lol). We always use to talk and talk and talk to each other until we fell asleep, everyday. One day she Kicked me out too cz she was cleaning her house lol.aww we had way too many memories..I really didn’t expect she would go this early either, she was always on my mind, all my life goals and dreams were for her.. At least I got to spend the last good moments of her life while she was doing fine .. flew back to Vancouver after the 5 months but now I don’t get see her again.. I live in Vancouver & didn’t have enough money to fly overseas to New Zealand from Canada at the moment(but still looked for flights day & night in hope I find magically cheap tickets..) & I have to take care of my sis, bro and dad.. and dad didn’t want me to go.. but my mum went of course… I’ve been extremely sad ,crying for days, can’t eat/sleep😔 Trying to be ok and remembering all the best times we had together .. our grandmas are our heros ❤

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’m so sorry to hear that, Leila! It’s great that you got to spend a good amount of time with your Grandma last year, I’m sure she appreciated spending time with you. It can be a complicated situation when it comes to buying expensive plane tickets at the last minute (I was looking at tickets to get to my Grandma’s funeral, too!) and sometimes those situations just don’t work out. If the best you can do is keep her in your memory, then I’m sure that’s good enough for her 🙂

      Reply

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